Western Stage’s West Side Story

14476214570_79a408aaed_z

Photo of Ezra Hernandez and Tasha Tormey by Richard Green

By Philip Pearce

West Side Story is deservedly regarded as a classic of American musical theater. Inspired by a sure-fire source called Romeo and Juliet, its Leonard Bernstein score is complex and gorgeous, its Stephen Sondheim lyrics sharp and character driven, its Arthur Laurents book a model of how to put together a stage story. Oh, and the dances are even more powerful and exciting than those in Oklahoma!

The new Western Stage version got a standing ovation from its opening night audience. My guess is this was essentially a tribute to the energy and commitment of the cast and crew after a performance which was sometimes moving but would benefit from the ironing out of some awkward loose ends during its August run.

But let’s start with the pluses. The lovers Tony and Maria are attractive and convincing. Ezra Hernandez has a powerful voice with a surprising range and he uses it not to purvey nice chunks of music but to act the intense and shifting dreams, passions and ultimate tragedy of the idealistic Tony. If once in a while he seems to lose full control of that commanding voice, well Tony in love is an over-the-top kind of guy and for me character development trumps even vocal precision in a musical.

As his Puerto Rican love Maria, Tasha Tormey sings charmingly and is every inch the pubescent maiden exploding into first love that we’ve seen in her prototype Juliet. She looks so demure and innocent that her strident opening demands for a party dress with deeper cleavage are as surprising as they are funny. And her closing confrontation of the rival Sharks and Jets over the corpse of her lover is terrifying and beautiful.

Whatever creative conflicts they may have had during the gestation period, Bernstein, Sondheim and Laurents produced what to me has always been one of the most thrilling Act 1 climaxes in Broadway history. It’s built around the beautiful “Tonight,” which has already become a kind of first act leitmotif. Amazingly enough, it was not even in the first draft of the script. For this key sequence, director Jon Patrick Selover masses most of the principals in an exciting counterpoint of bodies and voices that recaps every major event or relationship we have experienced so far and points to what lies ahead.

For the warring Sharks and Jets, “Tonight” promises a decisive destruction of the rival gang and full ownership of the turf. For the star-crossed Maria and Tony, “Tonight” will bring the ecstasy of their “wedding night.” For the sexy and street-wise Anita (Roxana Sanchez), there’s going to be a close encounter with her boyfriend, Sharks gang leader Bernardo (Javy Harnly). If and when he emerges winner of tonight’s rumble, she knows he’ll be “hot” for something more than a stag party victory lap. Some of the trenchant Sondheim lyrics get lost in the interplay of voices. Never mind. By now we know the characters well enough to figure out that what they are dreaming lies ahead. Laurents then moves the action straight into the crucial first act knife fight, beautifully choreographed by Christopher Villa, which shatters all the bright aspirations of the previous scene, leaving leaders of both gangs stabbed to death and hero Tony with blood on his hands.

Not your standard Saturday night family musical, West Side Story is such an artful blend of dark tragedy, sardonic comedy and beautiful but complicated music that it’s a challenge to any community theater, even one as seasoned as The Western Stage. They make a valiant effort but don’t always hit the target.

One opening night weakness was an off-and-on but persistent mismatch between the voices on stage and the instruments in the orchestra pit. Don Dally and his 18 musicians are to be commended for never once, like some other local pit orchestras, drowning out the singers. The problem here wasn’t volume, it was pitch. The lyrical numbers like “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart” and “Somewhere,” went well enough. But in the more layered and complex group numbers like “When You’re a Jet,” “A Boy Like That” and “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the singers seemed not to be hearing the opening melody line from the orchestra and so started off maybe a quarter tone sharp or flat and only eased gradually into the right pitch as the number progressed. The result was an uneasy tension as performer and instrumentalist struggled to blend. This was exacerbated by the changing volume levels of the amplified voices on stage, louder singing, softer talking.

The small handful of adult characters lagged behind the energetic youthful principals. This was particularly evident in the church hall dance scene, where Steve Cervantes as Glad Hand missed a lot of the comedy of a smarmy MC’s futile efforts to push a variegated bunch of dance couples into a bright social mix. The fact that the couples, having shuffled reluctantly through the Paul Jones mixer, then race straight back to their previous partners was staged so confusingly that the humor and social satire of the whole sequence was weakened if not completely lost.

Never boring, the production sometimes offered some exciting insights into an American classic, at other times only wistfully suggested what might have been.

Performances continue weekends through August 30th.